Inside the Factory: On the Assembly Floor

If you’ve ever seen one of our IBM Clocks or Regent Chandeliers and wondered how it came to be, all you have to do is walk onto the assembly floor at the Schoolhouse Portland headquarters and factory. The relatively relaxed environment belies how much productivity is being accomplished. “The view of our assembly team in action seems pretty chill when you consider that they produce between 1500 to 2000 finished products every week,” says Director of Operations Andrew Bohl. “We keep things rush-free because our assemblers know what they are doing and have the tools and training to support their work.”

On wood floors weathered from more than a century of use, towers of cardboard boxes, spools of many-colored wires, and bubble wrap rolls abound. Carts of parts and materials roll from place to place over walkways reinforced with worn steel plates. Several clocks tick away in near-unison as they’re tested for accuracy. White boards chart out production figures, goals, and worker accomplishments. 

All of our lighting and many of our home goods pass through just three work stations on this floor. Each work station comprises two pods with three work benches in each pod. These pods are built as mirror images of each other, like your right and left hands, and both hands stay busy throughout the day. Each pod is dedicated to producing one light fixture at a time at a controlled-but-brisk pace that can exceed a hundred fixtures a day. The first bench involves collecting all the necessary parts, inspecting them for quality, and starting any basic wiring or assembly tasks. The second bench takes these parts and assembles the fixture. The final bench tests every fixture and makes sure everything is up to standards before packaging the fixture for shipping. The Materials team, which tracks and moves parts from the moment they enter the factory to the moment they leave, keeps each work bench supplied with all the parts they need. 

Assembling these fixtures requires a great deal of skill on the part of the assemblers, and those aren’t skills that everyone comes in with. “Hiring, training, retaining and promoting good people has been our key strategy,” says Andrew. The foundation of the Schoolhouse training regimen is an educational system known as Training Within Industry, which was invented during World War II to increase the number of skilled workers supporting war time production. It’s a holdover from the heyday of quality American manufacturing that we’ve found indispensable in our system. While designing a beautiful product requires a degree of artistry, at this point in the process, structure and order are the key to successful creations. 

“Any time you have issues with process, it slows things down tremendously,” says Assistant Production Manager Jensyn Short. “Repeatability and process are our main focuses.” People on our assembly team are trained in their first set of skills over a 90-day crash course. From there, they continue their education by completing curriculums composed of individual skills such as wiring sockets, wiring switches, and using personal protective equipment.

Undergirding this system is the Japanese concept of kaizen, or continuous improvement. Each member of the factory is continuously looking for better and more efficient ways to accomplish their daily tasks. Supervisors always review their teaching processes and organizational skills to see what can be improved. Not only does this lead to a more efficient factory, it also leads to a more dynamic, engaged workplace. 

As much as these processes are studied, documented, and reproduced, there are still a few things that you can only learn from spending time on the job. From knowing how a socket is supposed to feel when it’s properly secured in the canopy, to learning the best way to twist and cap a wire connection, there are small details that workers learn through experience.

“We try to document everything and put it on paper but there is still a lot of tribal knowledge,” says Assembler Josh Davies, standing in front of his bench that’s heavy laden with specialized tools and light fixture parts. “By the time you’ve worked for two or three stations, you should know every skill.” This combination of a highly structured organizational system and skilled factory workers who always strive for improvement is the recipe that allows a Schoolhouse product to arrive at your front door.